I read the heartbreaking news about all those little bodies found in a mass grave on the grounds of the residential school in Kamloops just before I read the second of two revealing articles in the Winnipeg Free Press about conditions at the Stoney Mountain Federal Penitentiary. And it made me think about how we started locking away Indigenous people over a hundred and fifty years ago and how we still do that.
We took away the land Indigenous people lived on and locked them away on reservations. Most couldn’t leave without a pass from the Indian agent in charge of their reserve. They needed a pass to visit their children in residential school, take things to sell at local markets or attend cultural celebrations on other reserves.
Reserves were often located on less favourable land where it was hard to farm or make a living. Canadian laws made it difficult for residents to hunt and fish. Today there is often not enough land on reserves for people to have adequate housing and since many reserves are isolated some don’t have basic services like clean water or good education and employment opportunities
We locked Indigenous children away in residential schools taking them forcibly, if necessary, from their parents when they were as young as four years old and keeping them till they were sixteen. We know now that residential schools were places where children often lacked nutritious diets, were separated from their siblings, were forbidden to speak their Indigenous languages, were subject to harsh punishment and sexual assault, exposed to contagious diseases, received inadequate medical care, did unpaid labour in unsafe work environments and had their traditional cultural practices vilified. Families today still suffer from the long term impact of residential schools the last of which shuttered its doors in 1996.
And we are still locking Indigenous people away in our prisons. Here in Manitoba, 75% of the people incarcerated in our correctional facilities are Indigenous even though they only represent 15% of our population. And as the Free Press article pointed out the conditions in which they live in the Stoney Mountain Federal Penitentiary are far from humane. In the last four years, there have been 23 inmate deaths there caused by suicide, drug overdose, gang violence and “apparent” natural causes. Half of the inmates contracted COVID-19.
The building is old without many of the modern features that would make for greater safety and there aren’t adequate medical and mental health resources for inmates. Many are housed in century-old cells that prison reformer Agnes Macphail claimed at the time they were constructed were already dangerous and unfit for human habitation.
How do we make retribution for how we have locked away Indigenous people in the past? How do we change things so the practice doesn’t continue? I think we need to ask Indigenous Canadians to tell us how we do that and then we need to listen to what they say.